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All Cities are Competing Whether They Like It or Not!

Several months ago while discussing the possibilities of conducting research for the development of a a brand strategy we asked the executive director of a Chamber of Commerce, “Which nearby cities do you consider to be your main competitors?” She replied, “None of them, because we try to get along with all of them.”

It’s the Customer, Stupid!

This response revealed two unsettling things. First, though it is your customers who determine who your competitors are, this organization did not seem to have a customer focus or realize the power of the customer’s options. Second, the issue is not simply a matter of “getting along,” it is about generating and sustaining income, jobs, and prosperity for the community.  No corporation would think the way of this Chamber executive, yet many communities forget that their tourism and economic development programs are not operating in a vacuum. They are operating in a dynamic environment frequently dominated by several big players. It is the response to the city’s external competition that draws commercial partners together to better compete.

Perceptions = Reality

No places can afford to feel that they are entitled to prosperity and don’t need to compete. A place that doesn’t compete and have a laser-focus on customers will fade away and become irrelevant. They must compete because cities and regions of all sizes find themselves striving more fiercely for attention. Many have the added disadvantage of trying to compete with an image that is out of date, inaccurate, or unbalanced. Prospective customers might simply not care about the place. The perceptions surrounding them, whether accurate or not, are the reality that people use to judge whether they will visit, study, invest, or relocate there.

Why Does the Place Matter?

Choice is not limited to the battle between one city and another - customers have abundant choices. Locations within cities are also in fierce competition with each other: city centers with neighborhoods, big box retailers vs. Main Streets, shopping malls vs. traditional downtowns, and suburbs competing with all of the above.  All of this makes it imperative for places, no matter their size or composition, to clearly differentiate themselves and to convey why they are relevant and should matter to customers.

“Getting along” is certainly important, but it must not supersede your responsibility to the future well-being of your citizens or the city’s economic and social well-being.  It’s about business! And the development of your city’s branding and marketing is about business as well because the city’s marketing programs are responsible for sustaining hundreds or even thousands of jobs within the community.

© Destination Branding for Small Cities – Second Edition: Baker

NEW: Destination Branding for Small Cities - Second Edition by Bill Baker is drawing praise from business leaders, place branders and practitioners worldwide. It’s a must read primer that demystifies city branding and provides affordable, proven tools, templates and checklists to build a successful destination and place brands. Worldwide sales via Amazon.com

Ten Myths That Weaken the Branding of Cities

Despite the branding efforts attempted by many communities, a disappointing number fall short of their goals because they are distracted by myths and fail to understand the fundamentals of city branding.

Successful cities are increasingly those that consistently deliver on a valued promise that is prized by customers, clearly differentiate themselves from competitors, and make it easy for customers to choose them. While a city can draw many obvious benefits from a healthy city brand, there are several myths that continue to work against some cities in their efforts to develop a valued brand reputation.

Branding is strategic! It’s a business tool, and it’s all about organizing, differentiation, focus and consistency. And you really can do it on a shoestring budget by optimizing the performance of all resources, communications, and improving the customer contact opportunities that are already in play. But the challenge for cities is to know what to focus on. In a nutshell, your brand is your promise of performance and is closely related to the reputation and image of the city. It is at the heart of everything that you should be doing as a city marketing organization or economic development agency to positively influence the perceptions and experiences of customers.

The following myths are some of those that get in the way of cities releasing their true brand power. Awareness of these will be valuable as you begin your brand planning process.

1. Our logo is our brand

We find that many destination marketers and their Boards still regard their logo as their brand. Developing a compelling and distinctive brand reputation takes much more than a new logo, new graphic design, or “a fresh coat of paint”. A logo is just one element in your branding toolkit. It acts as a cue to trigger positive thoughts and feelings about your brand. But, it is not your brand! What are those positive thoughts and feelings you want people to have about your city to give it a competitive edge?

2. And we have a tagline

This is the same syndrome as found in #1. Your tagline, if you employ one, is an important and expressive phrase to capture and dramatize the essence of your brand promise. Hopefully it hints at the reward or benefit the customer can expect or how they may feel about the place. It plays a valuable role, but again, it is only one element of your branding toolkit.

3. And we created our brand this afternoon

On several occasions city leaders have told us, “we created our brand the other afternoon”. Invariably, we discover that they simply decided on a tagline or slogan during a brainstorming session over a few hours. The reality is that a true brand strategy will not emerge in an afternoon. There are many complex issues to consider, and the views of many stakeholders, customers and partners to consider. Branding is long term, and a strong and sustainable brand strategy is generally revealed after several months of close collaboration and research.  Successful brands demand a strong foundation.

4. We don’t need to go “upstairs”

Branding efforts that do not directly involve the CEO, Mayor or Board of the organization are doomed to fail. Before the project starts, obtain the approval and firm endorsement of leading executives, and desirably that of the city’s political leaders who will be instrumental in the future health and viability of the city’s brand. They must understand why this project is important to the well being of the city and buy into the concept of branding. Help them understand that this is about the city image and ROI, and contributes directly to the effectiveness of the city in attracting income, investment and talented people. Simply presenting the brand solutions to them when completed is likely to result in a very weak brand, controversy, and failure to gain any traction.

5. We don’t need to consult anyone

We know of countries, cities and regions that have launched a new brand strategy only to find that it wasn’t supported by stakeholders and partners. This has most often occurred when the brands were developed behind closed doors by agencies with no (or token) consultation or collaboration with key partners, stakeholders, or the community. The process and rationale for a city’s brand strategy must be able to stand the test of time, public debate, political scrutiny, and media questions. The best course is to conduct educational programs, generate buy-in and foster broad support from the start. Destination brands can live or die on these important early steps.

6. Branding happens anyway!

Every place that you have heard of brings images and associations to mind, even if they are only vague. Some of these perceptions may be inaccurate, negative or even outdated. Nevertheless, they can influence your desire to visit or do business there. The challenge for cities is to bring to mind those thoughts and feelings that support the image and reputation it desires. A place that does not proactively manage its identity runs the risk of being positioned by competitors, the media and others, and usually to its disadvantage. Proactively managing your identity and brand reputation isn’t an option – it’s a must!

7. We can do it ourselves

Some cities have called on us to complete their brand strategy after attempting to do it themselves. Their efforts became bogged down because of the sensitive and complex decisions that must be made in determining positioning and the brand’s composition. They found that a successful brand strategy required unbiased outside objectivity, specialized experience, practical insights, and the type of proven collaborative approach that a team of specialists brings. Above all they should bring you honesty in the form of the sobering voice of the customer and the outside world.

8. We can’t afford it

It’s actually a matter of whether you can afford not to have a brand management strategy! A strong brand strategy provides the leadership, framework, and elements to focus the city’s marketing programs around building and managing the city’s reputation – and avoid wasteful ad-hoc efforts. If the city is allocating public resources to marketing and has not yet clarified what it is, what it does best, how it should be consistently conveyed, and why it matters to customers, it is wasting public money. Your city’s brand is what your combined marketing efforts should be trying to build in customers minds.

9. Branding is a marketing department thing

One of the biggest myths of all is that branding is the responsibility of the marketing department or tourism office alone. To a greater or lesser extent, everyone in the community plays a role in developing your city’s reputation depending upon their level of contact with its customers. Because a brand is built cumulatively by all contact with the city, the brand can fall down at any point, at any time. Delivering a memorable and respected brand is everybody’s business. It demands that the walls between organizations, individuals and departments be knocked down. Until all key stakeholders and partners understand and participate in projecting and delivering the Destination Promise, the brand will struggle to come alive. If the brand strategy stays in the marketing department it runs the risk of being limited to advertising, websites and other communications, and not superior customer experiences.

10. Only advertising builds brands

We have heard this myth many times. However, Starbucks, The Body Shop and Tupperware were all established with little or no media advertising. Their outstanding customer experiences enabled them to build extreme loyalty and advocacy among their global customers. Cities and regions are also able to intimately connect with their customers because they envelop them and impact all of their senses. These powerful encounters are among the most influential in shaping perceptions, feelings and thoughts about a place. It is incumbent upon all cities wishing to build a strong brand to ensure that they delight their customers at every point or moment where they meet. When a city can do this, they might then think about advertising. Advertising should not be the city’s first and dominant marketing investment. In addition to experiences available in the city, other factors such as word of mouth, social media, personal recommendations, and public relations can have a far greater influence on destinations than advertising. Cities that are aware of these myths are able to develop a brand strategy that has a strong strategic focus and is likely to attract broad community support, claim a potent competitive advantage and generate increased prosperity for the city.

© Destination Branding for Small Cities – Second Edition: Baker

NEW: Destination Branding for Small Cities - Second Edition by Bill Baker is drawing praise from business leaders, place branders and practitioners worldwide. It’s a must read primer that demystifies city branding and provides affordable, proven tools, templates and checklists to build a successful destination and place brands. Worldwide sales via Amazon.com

Why Place Brands Fail

Adopting a city brand offers tremendous rewards if done correctly. However, sometimes these well meaning efforts introduce levels of complexity and pitfalls which could easily have been avoided if leaders had understood the nuances of place branding.

Many city branding projects get off to a great start with a lot of publicity and energy, only to soon run out of steam. Their momentum starts to lag, fresh ideas are not as frequent, designs start to miss their mark, and suddenly the brand has faded, it is confused, and becomes very fuzzy to customers and stakeholders.  There are many issues that can contribute to a failed city brand. Some of the common pitfalls that can contribute to these situations are:

1. Insufficient Understanding Of Branding

A local government administration or destination management organization (DMO) with a board, staff and partners that has an understanding of brand management, and  the concepts and techniques needed for a successful brand has a much better chance of defining its strongest positioning and brand elements.

Some community branding projects fail to gain funding support or become mired in controversy early on because key opinion leaders had not been briefed about what the project is and isn’t. Briefings should be built into the planning phases to ensure that stakeholders are well informed about the strategic nature of branding and its benefits.   Central to this is an understanding that branding is much more than a new logo, slogan or advertising campaign. At this point it is also important to convey the benefits of the project to residents and what it can mean for them.

2. Lack of Stakeholder Buy-in

Sustaining the brand requires the broad adoption and correct use of the brand by all stakeholders who can influence the most important points of contact with city customers. If the brand is only used visually through advertising and stationery, its impact will be limited. It’s best to build stakeholder buy-in from the earliest stages and continue to engage them over time to generate consistency in communications and delivery of brand experiences.

3. Failure to Grasp the Scope of Branding

This might also be referred to as logo and tagline fixation. Many communities forget to ensure that they are able to orchestrate outstanding visitor experiences before they roll-out their publicity and advertising campaign. Branding is all about delivering on a promise by orchestrating superior experiences. Branding is much more than a creative discipline – it is a management and strategic discipline as well!

4. Focusing On Short-Term Results

Remember, place branding is long-term and cumulative. The current image of the place may have developed over many decades and changing it will not happen overnight. While “heads in beds” may be vitally important to the viability of cities and their tourism partners, a short-term focus on occupancy alone is unlikely to support the long-term health of the city’s brand image. It takes time to build positive awareness, associations, name recognition and reputation. There’s no silver bullet!

5. Forgetting The Customer’s View

The greatest obstacles to successful community branding is insufficient customer focus and undue political influence and self interest. The preference for some political and opinion leaders to adopt risk averse, parochial, inclusive, self interest, or popular positions can run counter to the best interests of a city’s economic development when it is trying to promote its competitive edge. The focus should be on distilling the single strongest competitive advantage that will resonate with external audiences. Too many city branding efforts fail because they are based on what locals like and how they see themselves, rather than on what will be meaningful and valued by their external customers.

6. Disagreeing What is Being Branded

What are the boundaries? Is it just the downtown or the entire city? Is it the overarching brand for all communications efforts on behalf of the city? There is a delicate balance in the geographical and political scope of a community-based brand. If the brand tries to cover too wide an area and address too many different audiences, it may become diluted. This can happen by relying on weak points of commonality in order to simply gain agreement. From the start everyone should be clear about the parameters of the assignment, ensure that the correct problems are being solved, and be prepared to pay attention to the underlying issues.  Without this clarity, the exercise can quickly descend into confusion, ambiguity and controversy.

7. Insufficient or Irrelevant Research

While it is occasionally necessary for some places to advance through its brand planning without substantial customer research, it is not the desired option. Research, particularly consumer perceptional research, will provide a far more insightful view in determining attitudes and the strongest competitive positioning. Importantly, you need to know how prospective customers view your city compared to that of other choices and how their perceptions match their needs. Too frequently, cities are lured into research that simply delivers unnecessary “nice to know” information. Instead, they should zero in on the information that’s really essential for the action and strategic analysis required for building the city brand. Don’t spend too much time and money analyzing the demographics and buying behavior of locals when the real audience is outside of the city.

8. The Weak Positioning Trap

Don’t try to be all things to all people. At some point during every workshop we conduct, someone says “We have it all!”, “Small town, big city amenities”, or “We are the gateway to everything”. When conducting the process themselves, far too many cities make the mistake of thinking that they have hit pay dirt at this stage.  Claiming that your city or region “has it all” may feel warm and fuzzy, appease various local groups and avoid the tough decisions, but it invariably leads to very diluted positioning.  Failing to base the brand on its strongest and most distinctive benefits from the customer’s perspective will result in a weak and irrelevant proposition.

9. Not Following the Strategy

When no one has been given the responsibility to actively champion, manage or protect the brand, the effort can be patchy and will usually stray from the prescribed strategy and guidelines.  Successful brands are closely managed and protected, but responsibility for this is sometimes not well defined. If the brand blueprint is not closely followed, the strategy will be launched, implemented and adopted in an ad hoc and inconsistent manner. The worst result of all is when there is insufficient will to implement the strategy and “the bad old ways” are never left behind for fear of upsetting somebody. So much of city branding is about change management, partnerships and transitioning to a more effective focus for leadership, communications, resources, and behavior. It’s not going to happen automatically!

10. The Lure of “Bright Shiny Objects”

Advertising can be important to some cities, but designing a brand with an over-emphasis on an advertising theme is a recipe for failure. Allied to this pitfall is the mistake of selecting an agency planning consultancy on the basis of their attractive advertising examples. The selection of the best agency to create your advertising should be made when you have the strategy set and are at the implementation phase. Your first task is to get the strategy right, so that you lead the advertising in the right direction.  Of course, that also depends upon whether you have a budget sufficient to support an advertising campaign. It’s amazing how many communities are lured by a consultancy/agency’s attractive advertising examples when the city only has a tiny advertising budget. Beware of bright shiny objects!

11. Forgetting to Deliver What You Promise

Your brand is your promise of performance! It must be grounded in truth and reality. Therefore, like all promises, if you don’t live up to it, you will have a weak and unsustainable brand. An integral component of your brand management strategy must be dedicated to the essential actions and behavior needed for partners to collaborate in communicating and delivering the brand experiences that underpin the Destination Promise™.

12. Unhelpful Mindsets

We find that those places which are most prepared to “think outside of the box” and outside of the comfort zone are the likeliest to develop the most potent brand positioning and outcomes. Creating community-based brands is most successful when participants have an open and collaborative attitude in contributing to the common good. Individuals who have entrenched or parochial mindsets are usually unable to move beyond their own self-interest to embrace other perspectives. It is much more rewarding for all to strive toward collective results because these always prove more powerful than individual efforts.

13. Brand Fatigue

It is an old marketing truism that we get tired of our marketing long before our customers do. Some organizations ever so slightly depart from their brand strategy a small step at a time because they get tired of an aspect of it and soon find themselves considerably off strategy.  An important key to successful city branding is to encourage partners to focus on the Destination Promise and consistently use it in all creative executions and when collaborating to deliver brand experiences. Branding is long-term and cumulative. It is an ongoing organizing and management principle that needs continued focus to shape and deliver the brand over time. It involves a constant battle to remain relevant and distinctive.

14. Going It Alone as a DIY Project

Cities sometimes call on us to lead their brand planning after they have attempted to do it themselves. They found it too difficult without the objectivity, experience, and knowledge that a group of experienced specialists can bring.  Not to mention the time savings. Others try to reveal their brand by assembling a local committee to do the audit and strategic analysis. Too often the group lacks objectivity and fall into the trap of making locals feel warm and fuzzy, while forgetting about the realities of the marketplace and what will resonate with customers.

15. Not Engaging Specialist Skills

Not engaging a specialist agency or consultant to guide the community through all of the difficult analysis and decisions can result in less than optimum results. If you are considering appointing a firm to develop your brand strategy, ensure that they have a specialist background in brand planning for cities and regions.  Be sure that you will receive the personalized attention for the project and that you aren’t signing on to a logo factory.

Those cities that take steps at an early stage to avoid these and other potential pitfalls are in a much better position to develop a brand strategy that will unify and energize stakeholders, improve the city’s economic development and tourism performance, and enhance the city’s social capital.

© Destination Branding for Small Cities – Second Edition: Baker

NEW: Destination Branding for Small Cities - Second Edition by Bill Baker is drawing praise from business leaders, place branders and practitioners worldwide. It’s a must read primer that demystifies city branding and provides affordable, proven tools, templates and checklists to build a successful destination and place brands. Worldwide sales via Amazon.com

What Are the Benefits of Place Branding?

A well-conceived brand strategy can provide increased awareness, competitiveness, effectiveness and efficiency in how the city is presented by various city agencies. It sets the guidelines for how the location should communicate and the delivery of experiences for target audiences.

If there is a gap between the reality of the city or downtown and the expectations and perceptions held by outsiders, then a strategy is needed to bridge this gap. Regardless of whether people hold an overly positive or negative image, the city must address the situation since both of these scenarios can cause problems. An overly positive destination image can lead to disappointment, while a negative one will lead prospects to spend their time and money elsewhere and possibly perpetuate negative word of mouth.

When individual tactical decisions are driving destination marketing programs, it’s time for the intervention and strategic discipline of a brand strategy to coordinate those disparate activities and make the most of scarce resources. The materials used in your city’s marketing portfolio may look great, but without a brand strategy it will be a matter of luck as to whether there is consistency in their look, story, and content.  So often the ad of the month syndrome is at play where destination marketers constantly change their communications in the hope of finding a message that will strike the right chord.  Brand planning is the ideal way to avoid this kind of marketing schizophrenia where there is no consistency or clarity to the way the place presents itself.  It may be time to develop a brand strategy when you detect one or more of the following conditions:

  • The city is not leading with its most distinctive and competitive strengths.
  • The need to overcome a dated or inaccurate image.
  • New infrastructure developments, revitalization programs or a major event are likely to redefine the place.
  • The messages from the city and its partners lack focus, consistency or market relevance.
  • There is a gap between the city’s promise and its reality.
  • Resources are being applied in an inefficient or uncoordinated manner.

The Benefits for City Marketing Organizations

Downtown, tourism and economic development marketers and their partners

Provides a strategic focus based on competitive advantage and ways to connect with key audiences.

  1. Fosters a unified and cooperative approach to build the city’s reputation and create a prosperous business climate.
  2. Provides a decision-making framework to build a strong, identity and avoid contradictory and changing messages.
  3. Results in a higher return on investment (ROI) from marketing investments.
  4. Captures the strengths and personality of the place in ways that enables all stakeholders to use similar, consistent and compelling messages.
  5. Provides product and business development opportunities.

The Benefits for External Customers

Visitors and relocation prospects

  1. Provides peace of mind by increasing trust and reducing uncertainty.
  2. Establishes a clear and valued point of difference in the consumer’s mind.
  3. Saves time and effort in making choices.
  4. Reflects well on customers for being associated with the place.
  5. Taps into their needs and desires.
  6. Provides perceived added value and benefits.

The Benefits for Your Community

  1. Creates a unifying focus to aid all organizations that rely on the reputation and image of the city for all or part of their livelihood.
  2. Addresses out of date, inaccurate or unbalanced perceptions.
  3. Leads to improved stakeholder income, profit margins, and tax revenues.
  4. Increases the ability to attract, recruit, and retain talented people.
  5. Enhances civic pride.

An added benefit is that a healthy city identity and reputation can aid citizens being welcomed in the “right” circles, gaining seats on influential committees, attract awards, win bids to host events, and attract conferences.

A brand strategy will bring increased effectiveness and efficiency to your city’s marketing investments and the way that it presents itself, as well as providing many unexpected benefits for a wide variety of stakeholders.

© Destination Branding for Small Cities – Second Edition: Baker

NEW: Destination Branding for Small Cities - Second Edition by Bill Baker is drawing praise from business leaders, place branders and practitioners worldwide. It’s a must read primer that demystifies city branding and provides affordable, proven tools, templates and checklists to build a successful destination and place brands. Worldwide sales via Amazon.com

Engage the right consultant to create a brand strategy

We've recently encountered situations where advertising, web design, visual design and communications agencies pitch for, and win, the development of brand strategies for cities and regions with disastrous results. Unfortunately, few of these agencies had any tourism or place branding credentials.

Stay Focused on Objectives

Brand planning can be a very confusing situation for city leaders and marketers or panelists on a selection committee. In some cases, unsuspecting locals have been lured by the “glitter” of the advertising examples and designs presented by these agencies, causing them to lose sight of their original Request for Proposal (RFP), objectives and the role of advertising and designs in the development of a city brand.

We understand the need for ambitious cities to have great advertising, designs and communications. But those actions come after the overall strategic framework is established. Otherwise, it is like engaging a painter to design your home because you like the colors he chooses and how he will finish the job. The first step is to establish the right architecture for the house with a specialist architect.

It Takes Way More Than a Logo and Designs

At the outset, successful city branding requires awareness that branding is a strategic management tool and is much more than a logo, tagline or advertising campaign.  A true brand strategy will act as a beacon to guide all aspects of the city’s marketing, unify stakeholders to speak with one powerful voice and consistently present superior experiences.  Setting this strategy requires extensive research, stakeholder consultation, a lot of creative thinking and a thorough understanding of the nuances of city marketing and branding – for tourism and economic development.

Separate Strategy and Implementation

The first important consideration is to recognize that brand strategy development and marketing implementation are not the same thing. The project should be divided into two stages: (1) the formulation of the brand strategy, requiring strong brand research, analytical and strategic skills, as well as a detailed knowledge of tourism, economic development, experience development and placemaking, and (2) the strategy and marketing implementation, possibly requiring advertising agency, web design, public relations agency, and social media expertise. And it isn’t a marketing plan! While some firms will claim to do both strategy development and implementation, it pays to gain a clear understanding of the depth of their city and destination brand strategy experience. Recruit specialists appropriate to each phase. The place branding firm selected for strategy development must have the capacity to also consider organizational issues, partner relations, tourism and relocation dynamics, economic development, experience development and investment, as well as placemaking and wayfinding – and yes, they must also be creative and capable of designing a knockout visual identity system.

Hire the Right Type of Firm

Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) highlights this approach to managing your brand planning project in their publication, Destination BrandScience:

“Qualified, skilled brand expertise in strategic development is not easy to come by and even harder to identify. Typical RFPs use the words ‘agencies’. While agencies may provide some of the services required for developing a strategy for destination brands, it may be a conflict of interest for a company doing advertising or promotional campaigns to do the assessment and create the promise.

Many advertising agencies or graphic design firms believe that they are in the business of brand development, and indeed some are. However, the real question to ask is: What is the vendor selling – advertising, graphic design or strategy? Ask yourself, if you were developing an RFP for a large bridge project, would you solicit construction firms to do the engineering? Of course not. You want the expertise of an independent expert to design the critical elements for success. True brand (and destination) strategies require the same high level of expertise.”

The first step for any place is to distill a competitive brand platform as the foundation on which everything can be built using the best architect possible. Otherwise, it is like engaging a painter to design your home because of how he will finish the job without having established the right architecture and foundation with a specialist architect.

© Destination Branding for Small Cities – Second Edition: Baker

NEW: Destination Branding for Small Cities - Second Edition by Bill Baker is drawing praise from business leaders, place branders and practitioners worldwide. It’s a must read primer that demystifies city branding and provides affordable, proven tools, templates and checklists to build a successful destination and place brands. Worldwide sales via Amazon.com

Successful City Branding is About Change Management

After decades of developing brand strategies for cities of all sizes, I recognize that, in order to be successful, they are fundamentally an exercise in change management. A successful place brand often requires changes to regulations, laws, systems, budgets, processes, resources, and recruitment. Above all, it may call for a change of attitudes and relationships.

A New Approach

The first casualty may be the old “that’s the way we’ve always done it” attitude. For many people, the prospect of innovation, along with new focus, concepts, priorities, and partnerships causes extreme resistance. It removes them from their comfort zone and challenges entrenched attitudes. In these situations you must expose key partners and stakeholders to the benefits that come from alternative approaches so they can gain confidence and trust in the project and its outcomes.

A Fresh Mindset

A genuine mandate for branding success may require a change of mindset within, and between, many organizations. It calls for a collaborative approach and may involve the need to overcome long-held disagreements and turf protection. Tearing down unhelpful barriers, attitudes, and processes are major steps forward. Collaboration, networking, and integration are the signatures of a healthy brand. This certainly takes more than the efforts of the tourism or economic development offices alone. It should engage the people responsible for wayfinding systems, urban planning, parking, parks, education and business licensing. Some of them may have no idea of their daily impact on the identity of their city.

Take the Lead

One of the unexpected benefits of a collaborative approach toward brand planning is that it provides an unprecedented opportunity for the lead organization to showcase its role as a community and industry leader. Time and again, we have seen the branding process become the rallying point to re-energize the lead organization, its constituents and the marketing directions of their city. The challenge is to sustain this heightened enthusiasm and use it as a catalyst to consolidate the organization’s position as one of the city’s most valuable leadership organizations. It’s an ideal time to move people beyond turf building, internal politics and the dated opinions that may have prevailed in the past.

Lead organizations rarely have a better opportunity to display their value than through this process. The process gains credibility and support when there is a genuine effort to reach beyond “the usual suspects” and canvass the views of a wider range of constituents.

The progress and outcomes first from the planning, and then the launch and implementation, are greatly improved when participants are knowledgeable about place branding. Offering educational opportunities to those who will be actively involved in the planning process creates not only a more rewarding experience for them, but garners support and confidence in the long-term. However,  in order for the brand strategy to gain traction with the community, the lead organization must adopt many of the principles of change management, otherwise things might never leave “the bad old ways!”

© Destination Branding for Small Cities – Second Edition: Baker

NEW: Destination Branding for Small Cities - Second Edition by Bill Baker is drawing praise from business leaders, place branders and practitioners worldwide. It’s a must read primer that demystifies city branding and provides affordable, proven tools, templates and checklists to build a successful destination and place brands. Worldwide sales via Amazon.com

Place Branding Takes Time!

We are living in an era in which some brands like Facebook and iPad became enduring household names overnight. On the other hand, some have soared and then crashed just as quickly. Destinations and cities are different. Their identities and images have usually been shaped over a very long period, they almost always have small destination marketing budgets, need to overcome generations of preconceived thoughts and opinions, and must mobilize myriad stakeholders to adopt and manage the brand accurately and consistently.

Defeating the Old Perceptions

It’s difficult to change perceptions and views in the short term. After all, it possibly took decades, maybe even centuries, to form the city’s current image. And we know that the “old brain” is much stronger and inflexible than the “new brain” when it comes to replacing old images and stereotypes. For instance, we know of many post-industrial cities whose smoke stack industries closed decades ago, yet those cities are still regarded by some as grimy industrial cities. Similarly, if a city wants to reposition or rebrand itself to be known for something different to the past, outsiders won’t catch on to this overnight without extensive and sustained publicity.

It Takes a Village

Big budgets and better communications alone will not turn around the city’s image if its reality is standing in the way. It could be unattractive public spaces, crime, outdated infrastructure or lack of cooperation between businesses that is holding the place back. Today, place branding can engage urban planners, architects and placemaking specialists as readily as tourism and economic development marketers.

Small Victories, Again and Again

Branding can, and does, bring short-term benefits but the true value is long-term and cumulative. Successful place and destination branding is achieved with many small victories, again and again. City image is the result of thousands of influences and influencers over an extended period. On the other hand, a Grand Slam approach to branding on the basis of one big advertising campaign is a sure fire way to blow the budget with little long-term impact. True success will only come from the consistency of messages and outstanding experiences from many sources hitting their mark again, and again, and again.

The benefits of destination marketing and city branding are considerable, however they will not materialize overnight because it will take time for the brand to gain traction within the community, among key partners and with key markets. From the outset, you must be sure that the objectives are clear and realistic, programs are well funded and that there is an understanding of what branding is and isn’t. This includes ensuring that no one expects a magic wand. And when the brand strategy is finally revealed, that’s when the hard work really begins!

© Destination Branding for Small Cities – Second Edition: Baker

NEW: Destination Branding for Small Cities - Second Edition by Bill Baker is drawing praise from business leaders, place branders and practitioners worldwide. It’s a must read primer that demystifies city branding and provides affordable, proven tools, templates and checklists to build a successful destination and place brands. Worldwide sales via Amazon.com

Why is Branding Cities Different?

When discussing the differences in branding places and consumer products with friends in advertising agencies, they frequently maintain that there is no difference between the two. To some extent they are correct. However there are differences that have a profound influence on the brand planning, brand implementation and brand management. These relate to the complexities of ownership, consultation, decision-making, product development, and experience delivery.

Unlimited Stakeholders

The path to revealing a city or place brand can be a tricky one that usually involves a multitude of stakeholders and departs somewhat from that generally followed for branding corporate products and services.  One reason for the variation is the composite nature of places which are a compilation of many independent and competing businesses, products, and experiences that are owned and managed by many different organizations with no single management team or custodian.

A city has many faces and identities. For instance, it may be known as a destination for medical services, golf, education and shopping as well as being home for residents, each with different levels of political, financial and community support.

The Challenge of Committees

While a corporate brand may need approval by a marketing team or Board, a city brand usually requires endorsement by several public organizations in which the players may never see completely eye-to-eye, may not share a common goal and have a different vision for the place. Another problem for many city brands is that important leaders frequently do not have strong marketing or branding credentials, nor do they have a customer-focused perspective. Yet they can exert considerable influence over the process and end result. The city brand must overcome enmity and rise above politics. Support from political leaders is vital and their understanding must be nurtured because they may not readily recognize the direct relationship between decisions they make and the reputation and attractiveness of the city.

Community branding must withstand a level of public debate that consumer brands rarely endure. A city brand must stand the test of time, public debate, political scrutiny, media questions, and the analysis of marketing partners. The best way to insulate the brand from this scrutiny is to generate buy-in and involvement through an open, consultative planning process.

Managing Interest Groups

Vigilant project leaders are necessary to ensure that the process follows an unbiased and objective view while constantly balancing the need to resonate with external customers and optimize support from residents and key stakeholders. There is also the challenge of balancing the influence of particular interest groups. The recommended brand focus might result in certain businesses being a central element, but this determination should be reached without political influence or coercion. Allowing the greatest strengths to rise to the top without undue influence will result in a much stronger and sustainable brand.

A City is More Complex

Place and destination branding usually requires an approach that is more conciliatory and inclusive than that found with most consumer products. For instance, being very specific with the positioning may unintentionally alienate some locals and cause controversy. Conversely, the trick is to avoid diluting the brand to the point where it loses its strongest competitive edge and ends up being seen as bland and irrelevant.

Additionally, unlike a consumer product such as a soft drink, cities are not discrete or independent entities. A city is much more complex and cannot be reformulated or terminated if it is not popular or is under-performing. Even the prospect of changing the name of the city can prove difficult.

Project and community leaders who are aware of the differences between the branding of places and consumer goods are in a much better position to adapt to these situations when they become evident. Their presence should not represent a barrier, but a need for further fine-tuning – and a lot of patience! Successful city branding calls for strong visionary, support and committed leadership.

© Destination Branding for Small Cities – Second Edition: Baker

NEW: Destination Branding for Small Cities - Second Edition by Bill Baker is drawing praise from business leaders, place branders and practitioners worldwide. It’s a must read primer that demystifies city branding and provides affordable, proven tools, templates and checklists to build a successful destination and place brands. Worldwide sales via Amazon.com

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